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History Man
The Scotsman Publications Ltd./ Scotland on Sunday

September 27, 1998

by Vicky Allen

Joseph Fiennes owns a face you love to gaze at, a perfect collection of features coveted by us and the camera. He'd hate to admit it, but, like his brother Ralph, Joseph has a sensual beauty, and on the way to our interview, I am transfixed by a poster for the movie Elizabeth, a line-up of dramatic faces, from Cate Blanchett through to Christopher Eccleston and Geoffrey Rush, and including, of course, Fiennes. I find myself wondering if it is just a good snap.

We meet at a dingy rehearsal rooms in Lambeth. He's in his second day of work on A Classy Affair a new play for the Royal Court, which he immediately enthuses about, glad to be back on the boards, his home territory. We dive into the local pub, where he buys me a drink with pennies scraped together because we both weren't prepared for this.

I'd been warned. Despite his fledgling fame, Fiennes already has a reputation for disliking interviews, but he seems relaxed enough, his face perhaps a little more closed than expected. And while he may groan at the publicity game, he looks born to the job; short, cropped hair, stubbled chin, leather car-coat and trendy trousers, hanging on a physique that's so slender, it's almost adolescent.

Fiennes is so softly spoken, you wonder where in that slight frame he hides the theatrical
projection that has transfixed RSC audiences in the likes of Dennis Potter's Son of Man. I edge my tape recorder across the table to almost under his chin, in the hope of picking up better on his ever so quiet replies, and we begin. Charmingly shy, yet devastatingly self-confident, he has developed a habit of serving the question straight back to the interviewer. When I ask whether he has any idols, he looks puzzled, and asks me if I do. He listens warily as I skirt the question of his older, more famous brother, until it just comes out: "How do you deal with comparisons with Ralph?"

There's a short yet amplified silence. "They seem absurd. Would anyone compare you with
your younger brother?" Actually, I don't see any reason why they wouldn't, but that's not
the point. What the point is, and Joseph knows this, is that everyone loves to connect the
celebrities and see on face transposed on another, another beautiful variation on a well-known beautiful face.

"I'm waiting for one original journalist not to mention him," he smiles, not so sweetly this time. Fiennes, who once claimed he knew more about the characters he plays than he does about himself, reanimates and wades into a potted history of the Elizabethan soap opera when I ask him about his latest role as Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester in Elizabeth.

"Historically, Dudley is fascinating. I think he was incredibly vain. He had more courtiers
than any other man in court. He was flamboyant, he was a great entertainer and he was Master of Horse -which basically meant that he threw the parties. But I think what I ultimately felt was that he genuinely did love Elizabeth. And that meant everything to him and they had a very unique bond early on when her future was very uncertain as was his. But he got out of his depth politically."

All this is cracking stuff. Vain, yes, selfish, yes, Dudley was all those things. Read any account and you'll discover how he played the court, possibly knocked off his own wife and fought with the Queen, but Fiennes' character in Elizabeth is made to look like a lovelorn boy by comparison with Christopher Eccleston's domineering, scheming Earl of Essex. For all Fiennes's capacity to physically mesmerise, Dudley can't help but seem a narcissistic wimp.

"It's true that on the page," admits Fiennes, clearly aware he's the Elizabethan babe of the plot. "He is somewhat removed from the historical figure and becomes a kind of celluloid lover. So, for the majority of the film I was trying to break away from that. I now see what it's like for a lot of the women who play these kind of roles to men. Because of the dynamic, the Queen will always be the dominant character. She is very like her father, Henry VIII. She has the heart of man."

The dynamic of the roles could never be any other way. The glory, after all does belong to Gloriana, the woman who plays the Queen - to Cate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson, Bette Davis and all the other actresses, not their male co-stars (well, yes, there was Errol Flynn). Therefore Indian director Shekhar Kapur's rendering of the story is all the more potently focused. In our image - -obsessed culture, it's not the desperately conniving men we're so much interested in (been there, done that). It's Blanchett's self-reinventing, image-conscious Elizabeth.

With his RSC background - in the last few years he's played both Christ in Son of Man and
Troilus in Troilus and Cressida - at 27, Fiennes is well equipped to play the heftier roles in
historical or literary adaptations, but he should be able to avoid being cast as a male
Helena Bonham Carter, stuck forever in period dramas. His feline good looks also lend
him easily to the Brit Babe role as in Martha ... Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence and
Stealing Beauty. And whether costume or current, Fiennes's on a cinematic roll. Not only
is Elizabeth about to hit our screens but he plays William Shakespeare in Tom Stoppard's
Shakespeare in Love out later this autumn.

"The roles were very different. The material on Dudley is rich, but with Shakespeare, it's
strange, though everybody is so familiar with him as an icon, other than the work itself
there's nothing much known about him. You just have to work from the script. You have
to go along with the world that Tom has invented, of a little guy churning out genius
without even knowing it, a wheeler dealer with the gift of the gab." So, is it purely
coincidence that draws him to this age? Fiennes laughs. "I would have loved to live back
then. It's a very Mediterranean period: a passionate age, violent, dangerous - it's not repressed."

And it's true, there is, despite the fact he comes from a seemingly quintessential English
family, something Mediterranean about him.

Christopher Hibbert's biography on Elizabeth reports that Dudley was so dark that people
called him 'The Gypsy' and Fiennes wears the appropriate brooding exoticism.

The extent of Fiennes's homework impresses. "It was a great chance," he explains, "to catch up on a lot of the history I missed at school. I had a strange upbringing where I didn't stay in a school for longer than a year, a year and a half. I missed everything. I'd always be learning separate syllabuses."

The equal youngest of a large family, with six siblings, a novelist mother, Jennifer Lash
(who died of cancer) and a photographer father, Mark, he was constantly uprooted as the
troupe moved from home to home. It prepared him well for an acting career. "I think if
you're thrown into a new school every few years, you have to address your communication
skills. You have to change. You have to be able to access the people who are there, to
survive what is the most torturous time of your childhood. It's not just that you learn to
reinvent yourself, but you get a chance to reinvent yourself, to add those little things to
your character in a way that if you were with people all the time, they might question."

Though he is happy to give out the plain facts of his family - twin brother Jake, who's a
gamekeeper, the rest all successfully working in the arts - he is unwilling to psychoanalyse
the dynamics. Like most actors he would like to be interviewed about his work, not his
personal life. But also like most actors, at least the less vocal ones, he would like the work
to speak for itself.

"Anything I've got to say," he explains, picking up his drink, "is in the work."

 

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